(This interview appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
After an injury ended her career as a classically trained ballerina, Maggie Austin shifted her focus to baking, enrolling in the prestigious L’art de la Patisserie program at the French Pastry School in Chicago. She launched Maggie Austin Cake in 2010, and has since become one of the most sought-after cake artists in the country. She counts celebrities and even members of the royalty among her clients, and her detailed designs – which usually feature lifelike sugar flowers – have inspired legions of fans around the world. Her book Maggie Austin Cake: Artistry and Technique (HMH, 2017), is an invaluable resource for aspiring cake artists, and includes the secrets behind many of the techniques that are a hallmark of her ethereal cakes (including tips for working with her homemade gum paste). Austin took a break from her work recently to share her thoughts on her remarkable career.
You attended the French Pastry School in Chicago. How important was culinary school to your success?
I was living in Chicago when an injury brought a sudden end to my career as a ballet dancer. I was interested in pastry and I wanted the best possible training I could find. The French Pastry School’s six- month overview was an amazing way for me to explore the many different paths with some of the world’s best instructors.
What first attracted you to cake decorating?
Initially, I just wanted to make sugar flowers! But the thought of putting my flowers on some else’s design just didn’t sit well with me. Working with fondant and gum paste is all about attention to detail and endless patience. I love the way the designs take on a life of their own. It’s an amazing medium.
Did the discipline you cultivated as a ballerina help you as a cake artist?
Oh, absolutely. For a dancer, training never ends. The daily process of striving for an unachievable perfection becomes a part of you. As a designer, I’ve let that goal of perfection go. Instead, I find complete peace in the process itself.
Your flowers are so delicate and among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. How did you master them?
I use a homemade gum paste recipe that allows me to create paper-thin flowers. I don’t focus on being botanically correct. Instead, I try to capture the spirit of the flower. Broken petals and holes in leaves give them a softness. Flaws breathe life into the work.
You and your sister Jessica started Maggie Austin Cakes, and two weeks after you launched your website, you were on the Today show — amazing! How did that happen?
It was a crazy time. We had done a tasting with a wedding planner who had a popular blog. After they posted photos of my work, we went viral. We had no idea! When I got the call, I was stunned, but honored. My first commissioned wedding cake was on national television.
How do you handle your initial cake consultation with a bride?
When I meet with clients, the first thing I do is serve cake. My goal is to set everyone at ease. As the designer, my job is to guide the couple toward a clear articulation of the design elements that appeal to them. As they turn the pages of my portfolio, I listen carefully to the language they use to make observations. Every design is custom and it’s my job to bring what they love to life.
How do you continue to be inspired as a cake artist?
I never look at other cake designers’ work, and my inspiration is literally everything else. Daily walks in the country with my dog Bessie, exhibits at the National Gallery, Fashion Week runway shows, an amazing quilt my husband finds at an antique auction – I’m surrounded by inspiration!
Does a venue ever factor into your cake designs?
Absolutely. The cake integrates into the overall aesthetic of the event as well as the scale of the venue. Good design is in harmony with the environment.
What’s your preference – fondant or buttercream?
What are some of your favorite color and flavor pairings?
I firmly believe that cake should be tasty. I love comfortable flavor profiles, like chocolate cake with hazelnut and cappuccino or pear cake with blackberry and white chocolate. For colors, the design determines the hues. I tend to be attracted to a moodier palette.
What’s the toughest part of your job? And the most rewarding?
I am passionate about teaching, which is both tough and incredibly rewarding. I work with students from all over the world and I feel so privileged to be a part of their own artistic journeys. Some are professionals, some are just baking for friends and family, and some are complete beginners. Everyone is together making beautiful things while building the self-confidence and resilience to take their work to a new level.
What is one piece of advice you’d give novice cake artists?
Photo credit: Kate Headley